18 October 2009

A different expectation

One of the prejudices I managed to nurture throughout my previous mainline church experience was the notion that evangelicals have a sub-standard intellectual tradition. I thought that most of them just didn't want to really think about faith. (I mean, why else would they believe in the pesky doctrine of the sovereignty of God?)

I was introduced to the error of my ways about three years ago when I encountered a faith community of women at the now-defunct Choosing Home. For the most part, these were stay-at-home mothers who were...how can I say this correctly... not in the least bit dumb. I don't want to use "intellectual giants" because probably none of them would accept such a description of themselves, but suffice to say, their knowledge of the Bible, theology (both theoretical and applied), and church history just amazed and astounded me. I was brought up short in front of a false picture of evangelicals I had painted and hung off to the side of my faith journey. What I had created was not real. It was a convenient portrayal so I could disregard the hard questions I would inevitably be asked.

Our family has been participating in an evangelical church (Evangelical Mennonite is the best description, or at least the most well-known) for the last five months. Today, our adult Sunday School class, which involved about 25 adults from the ages of 20-40, engaged in a spirited, intellectual discussion about Calvin. I was amazed that laypeople, and not just a few laypeople, but many of those in the room, not only knew who Calvin was, but knew more about theology and the differences in the theology than I did. Their comments revealed an intellectual curiousity about faith that indicated that this discussion was not their first introduction to theological debate. And this was no milquetoast discussion; it was passionate, and complex. There was never a convergence of opinion/ belief -- some of the theology introduced was pretty liberal, some pretty conservative -- but it was an incredibly respectful discussion. It was completely unlike any conversation I've had at church, ever. It was, frankly, exhilarating.

When Dennis and I processed it verbally after church together, we realized two things...

1.) This church expects a certain level of literacy from followers of Christ. The expectation is informal, but it is there. It begins with Biblical literacy, but extends to a basic knowledge of different theologies, Christian traditions and world religions. Dennis mentioned today that he has been incredibly impressed by the knowledge possessed by laypeople in the congregation. I hadn't really thought about it much, but when he mentioned it, I realized how extraordinary this level of knowledge is, particularly in the light of my second realization, which will probably get me into trouble...

2.) I have been confronted again and again with the fact that, in large part, the mainline church is failing its people when it comes to really connecting the mind with the process of faith. I'm not sure where it was that it became a joke that we don't read the Bible. It should be incite a great sense of shame, I think. What mainline illiteracy has produced is a laity that is dependent on ministers to not only illuminate, but also introduce basic Biblical concepts. This allows for only a very narrow thread of theology to be discussed and considered amongst the people. Because hardly anyone, including pastors, are secure in Biblical knowledge, there is almost no ability to produce an intellectual discussion, let alone a classical argument/counter-argument. Debate doesn't exist. And when it does, it generally isn't very respectful. Bottom line -- the conversation I experienced this morning simply couldn't have taken place in the churches of which I've been a part or with which I'm familiar. And that's primarily because of a basic lack of necessary education.

So, I've realized again how ridiculous my former prejudice is. It turns out that picture I painted of someone who did little to move beyond preformed suppositions and did less to challenge one's faith intellectually, was the mainline me. The sub-standard Christian intellectual tradition was mine.

I was schooled again today. At church. It was a wonderful thing.


Tonya said...

You know, we had a hard time finding a "thinking" church (for lack of a better term) when we moved but it ended up being one where these types of discussions range freely and the Bible is taught with passion. I'll agree with you, it is exhilarating. My kids actually like to go to church- and every one of them sits in with us (no kid's programs). I cant remember ever enjoying church as a child and sitting in on the sermon with my parents, when I had to, was torture. I think you are right when you say that the church has dropped the ball. I think we have softened the gospel, expected very little out of believers and made God out to be something He isn't for the most part. There is an old, old man at our church (we all call him Pap-Paw) who constantly reminds us all of these things and warns us from falling away. And he's a Calvinist for the most part. All of that C and A stuff facinates me. I used to be a staunch A but then I chatted with some C's and got a much better understanding of their pov so now I don't consider myself either C or A because I agree with both camps on certain issues. I wonder what that would make me. I would have loved to been in our your Sunday School discussion.

Rambling on and on here.....all to say, very interesting post and I agree.

Geoffrey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
April said...

Tonya... I think the thing with the kids is key. This church has a children's church program for kids from 2-pre-K, but once they are Kindergarten age, they're expected to be in church where they use the Bible. Biblical literacy is so crucial. I think it's the key to everything.